02 August, 2009

Book 20 - Le Testament Francais, or: Identity theft, Soviet stylez

In the words of Granny Weatherwax, I aten't dead! Just a tad lazy.

Title: Le Testament Francais (1995)
Also known as: Dreams of My Russian Summers

Author: Andrei Makine

Why this book?
Another recommendation from my Russophile co-worker. (She's currently reading War and Peace in the original Russian. She is all kinds of amazing.)

What's it all about anyway?
The book is written by an unnamed narrator who is growing up in the Soviet Union, and is told in three broad sections. In the first, he is a young boy who spends his summers at his grandmother's house. She fills his head with stories of her own childhood in France and he begins to adopt her own French identity. This sets him apart from the other children his age, but he is content being different as he has a certain sense of superiority. In the second section of the book, he is an adolescent and rebels against his own identity. He finally joins the other kids his age, turning his back on his one former friend, another loner. He no longer wants to see his grandmother, as he knows many of the stories she told him as a child were not true. In the last section, he is an adult, living in France. He is now at peace with his dual identities - both French and Russian - and he has lived in France so long that he knows the Russia he remembers no longer exists, much like the Paris his grandmother remembers.

The Good and the Bad
I really wanted to like this book. It was a good book, beautifully written. And yet I found it almost a chore to get through (in fact, only the knowledge that I could tick another book off my list when I had finished it really kept me going.) I think it was because I just never connected with the narrator; he came across as having this really superior attitude, even as an adult. I feel like he was supposed to be looking back with nostalgia, but the tone completely missed the mark.

I was interested in the theme of cultural identity, not least because this book was in many ways the story of the author himself - Makine was Russian, possibly with a French grandmother, and was granted political asylum to stay in France after working there for some years as a teacher. Unfortunately, my dislike for the narrator tainted the entire book, so that I couldn't really enjoy his exploration of identity and belonging.

So should I read this book or what?
I pretty much hated Le Testament Francais, so I can't recommend it. However, not everyone agrees - it did win two prestigious awards, both the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Medicis. I wouldn't say no to reading anything else Makine has written, either.

Lights, camera...
The Film Festival is now finished, but I do have more films to rec! As well as those listed below, I did see Coraline, but I'm hoping to do a separate post on that at a later date so I won't go into it just now.

Che comprises of two movies following the life of the revolutionary Che Guevara. The first, The Argentine, was by far superior; it was better paced and had better character development, and while it wasn't necessarily sympathetic to Castro's movement it at least showed the revolutionaries as having a strong sense of purpose. The second film, Guerilla, was pretty disappointing after that; it moved agonisingly slowly, and the entire film was overshadowed by the knowledge that it was going to end with Guevara's death.
The Strength of Water is a New Zealand film - some people describe it as a ghost story, but it's more a story that just happens to feature a ghost. A young boy loses his twin sister and has to learn to cope with life without her; her death also brings together two of the town's loners, teenagers who are trying to escape their pasts. The film moved me without me feeling like I was being emotionally manipulated, which is something that I hate.

Finally, Louise-Michel is a French film, allegedly a comedy about a male-to-female transgendered woman who hires a hitman to off the CEO of her company after her entire factory is laid off. The hitman she hires is a male-to-female transgendered man who has problems of his own to deal with. I say it's "allegedly" a comedy because it was billed as such; I think I laughed out loud maybe three times during the entire thing. Which is not to say that it wasn't a brilliant film, but it's more satire than comedy, a film which pits the illiterate and poverty-stricken Louise against a ridiculously wealthy man who thinks nothing of the lives he ruins on a daily basis. It's, well, a very French film.

And the unrelated link of the day: Awful Library Books. Which I think is a self-explanatory title.

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